LOWELL -- This year's KISS 108 Jingle Ball was deafening, but it was unclear whether it was because of the volume of the music or the volume of the fans. The mostly teenage, mostly female audience Thursday at Tsongas Arena was almost as much a focus of the show as any of the performers. They screamed their approval constantly, sent text messages that were shown on the video screens flanking the stage, and sang along with the videos between acts.
The lineup was almost absurdly ambitious in its scope, with 14 acts taking the stage over 5 hours. But the music itself was remarkably varied, covering the hip-hop of the Black Eyed Peas, the acoustic novelty tunes of Bowling for Soup and Frickin' A, the bland pop-ified punk of Simple Plan, the undistinguished piano ballads of Vanessa Carlton and Gavin DeGraw, the jazzy acoustic pop of John Mayer, the sub-John Mayer pop of Ryan Cabrera, and whatever you'd call what Gwen Stefani's playing these days.
The show never let up for a second. With the videos, the onstage interview of "One Tree Hill" heartthrob Tyler Hilton, and the text messages, it seemed designed to prevent a single quiet moment. With each act performing a few songs, just long enough to play their hits (or in a few cases, hit), the show became a repeated loop of instant gratification.
Still, it wasn't until 2 hours into the show that the first substantial act showed up. With the crowd warmed up but not yet exhausted, the Black Eyed Peas played their obvious hits; their backing band pounded like thunder, and people in the crowd waved their arms above their heads during "Where Is the Love?" without being asked. Stefani took the stage not long afterward for an unannounced performance complete with marching band and Harajuku girls, energetically kicking out two songs, including "What You Waiting For?" before splitting.
Anybody hoping to smirk their way through Ashlee Simpson's performance was in for a disappointment, as her set was shockingly good despite an unfortunate bout with a nonworking microphone right at the start (the sound crew can be such jokers). The problem solved, she delivered a spirited and genuine performance noticeably lacking a "guide vocal" (as verified by the dips in volume when she occasionally turned away from the microphone). Following Simpson, Christina Milian's decision to forgo any visible musicians or DJs for her disposable, synthetic dance-pop simply seemed imprudent.
Mayer played next with just his acoustic guitar but seemed distracted and hurried as he went through his three songs. The show ended with Kelly Clarkson, whose six-song set, the longest of the evening, served as a reminder of why so many people voted her to stardom in the first place. She split her songs between her new album, "Breakaway," and her debut "Thankful," and if she's still saddled with material that's clearly inferior to her voice, she elevated otherwise innocuous pop songs such as "Since U Been Gone" well above the level of guilty pleasures.
Unfortunately, pockets of the audience interpreted the quiet and gorgeous "Beautiful Disaster," accompanied only by piano, as a cue to leave. By then, it was 11:30 on a school night, but after spending so much time with some of the bad and the ugly of contemporary pop radio, it would have been nice to see the good get its due.
KISS 108 Jingle Ball 2004
At: Tsongas Arena, Thursday night